The candidates agree: Schools will be primary

Posted: March 25, 2007

The Philadelphia School District has tried almost everything: Privatization. Mayoral control. A state takeover. A non-educator as its chief executive.

But kids still fail or drop out in alarming numbers. More teachers are getting assaulted. And despite test-score gains and other improvements, the 174,000-student system is struggling financially and academically, with half its schools still failing to meet federal targets for achievement.

With the May 15 primary around the corner, education advocates say Philadelphia's next mayor should do what no recent mayor has: champion education as his cornerstone issue and take responsibility for fixing the schools - regardless of who's officially in charge.

"We're looking for a mayor that is going to make school reform a part of their legacy," said Ali Kronley, head organizer of the Philadelphia office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families.

All five major Democratic candidates agree that they would make education a priority. All say they will seek more money to support the deficit-plagued district and put armed city police in schools that need it, a move the district has sought and Mayor Street has rebuffed. They also pledge more funding for the strike-plagued Community College of Philadelphia.

Education advocates like what they hear, but say much more than lip service is needed.

A mayor should express a vision for the schools, then set out to align city services to schools' needs and develop support for that vision within the community, said Len Reiser, codirector of the Education Law Center, a Philadelphia advocacy group for parents and students.

"A mayor could be a leader in articulating what kind of school district we want to see here in Philadelphia and could encourage the School Reform Commission and other civic leaders and community groups to join in pursuing that vision," he said.

Nationally, some mayors have made headlines for such efforts. New York City's Michael Bloomberg has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the schools' operating budget, and billions into building and renovating schools. He's also creating a network of small high schools.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., Rick Baker has won praise for offering bonuses for stellar high-school principals and launching a home-loan forgiveness program to recruit good teachers, as well as mentoring programs and business partnerships.

"There are lots of things mayors can do: leadership, raising public awareness, engaging the community around the problem and helping them be part of the solution," said Audrey Hutchinson, who monitors education issues at the National League of Cities. "One of the most important things we'd like to see happen is for City Hall to break down the barriers."

In Philadelphia, one of those barriers has emerged in recent months: Street and district chief Paul Vallas have wrangled over what Vallas calls a lack of financial support from the city. Street, for his part, says he won't pump in more city dollars until he gets a detailed look at the district's financial state.

The school district faces a $37 million deficit this year and much larger shortfalls in later years if funding doesn't rise. A recent consultant's report said the deficit could reach $1 billion in five years without cuts or new revenue; district officials dismissed that estimate as unrealistic.

Advocates say they don't hear the candidates talking about the schools enough - but are encouraged to hear them pledge support for more city and state funding.

"The two big obstacles that the candidates are going to need to figure out how to address is where is the money going to come from to pay for any new initiatives and how are we going to get past the history of balkanization of the city and school district," said Paul Socolar, editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent nonprofit newspaper that covers the district. "I don't think we've yet heard a satisfactory analysis of how a mayor is going to get all the cogs in the machine turning in sync with one another."

One Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, says education is his number-one priority. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and State Rep. Dwight Evans rate schools a close second after public safety. Former City Councilman Michael A. Nutter says education shares the top spot with safety and economic development. Businessman Tom Knox takes a similar stance, and he links all three issues: "People with jobs don't shoot people."

The candidates differ on whether the time is right for the mayor to assume control of the schools, which were taken over by the state in 2001 under a partnership with the city. Undoing that would take the support of a majority of the five-member School Reform Commission and the state education secretary. Nationally, mayoral control of schools has yielded mixed results, but more cities are looking to do it.

"I've always believed the mayor should be responsible for public education," said Nutter, adding that he had opposed the state takeover.

Others disagreed.

"Moving the state away from the table may not be helpful. It may win you a few more votes," Fattah said.

Several of the candidates are well versed in the district's challenges and have addressed education issues in their current or previous jobs.

On Council, Nutter was known for his careful reviews of the district's budget and lobbied for a measure that in 2000 gave the mayor authority to appoint all nine school board members upon taking office.

Nutter is the only candidate who currently has a child in the school district; his daughter is a sixth grader at Masterman, an academic magnet school. Brady's children are alumni of the district. Fattah's and Knox's children attend private schools - which both said was a decision made by their wives, but with which they concurred. "I don't argue with my wife," Knox quipped. (Fattah's two older children graduated from city public schools.) Evans has no children.

Evans, a longtime legislator, consistently has zeroed in on education as a prime issue. He was the architect of the legislation that allowed for the state takeover. He also has been a staunch supporter of charter schools - having helped to open the West Oak Lane Charter - and has been involved with the nonprofit Foundations Inc.'s efforts to run a network of district schools in West Oak Lane, including Martin Luther King High School.

Of the five candidates, he is the only one who heartily supports continuing contracts with the district's six outside managers, including Foundations, which are running 41 of the district's 270 schools. In fact, he wants more outside contracting.

"We need to use for-profits, nonprofits, any organization that has the ability and that you can hold accountable," said Evans.

Evans has laid out a detailed education plan with references to new programs that he would import from other cities. He also has the distinction of having been a public school teacher - a substitute at Leeds Middle School for a year in the mid-1970s.

Fattah's record on education issues also is long and has had impact. He has nurtured a national program to better prepare children from low-income families for college, and a local program that provides college scholarships. His education plan calls for an intricate weaving of city, school district and community services to support youngsters. Serving on education committees and college boards, he has been outspoken about the state's school-funding system, which he says continues to shortchange the city.

"I will work hand in hand with the governor to fight for a new funding formula," Fattah said. "It's a big fight. As mayor of the city, I would be in the lead on this fight."

Brady is known for his negotiation skills, which helped to broker a contract between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the district after a weekend strike in 2000.

"A lot of times people don't want to give in to each other, but they give in to me," he said.

He has pledged support of several union-backed initiatives, including increasing the number of nonteaching assistants, or NTAs, in schools. The district had thinned those ranks and brought in nonunion help.

Brady - whose mother was an NTA - says these workers "are needed for the safety of the schools."

Of the five candidates, Knox was the only one to link increased city funding for schools with state funding.

"I would want to see what the state would do before I would commit to anything," he said, asserting that the state should be giving "hundreds of millions" more to supplement the district's $2 billion budget.

Knox, a self-made millionaire, also pledged to make a "leadership gift" to Community College of Philadelphia from his own pocket to spur an endowment fund for scholarships.

One interested observer, Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he was unsure whom - if anyone - his 18,000 members would endorse. But he handicapped the race this way:

Evans might be best at increasing state funding because he knows Harrisburg and heads the House Appropriations Committee; Brady's City Council ties could help him increase city aid to the schools. The best bets for improving academic achievement? Nutter and Fattah.

But Kirsch adds, "They're all pretty close."

For continuing coverage of the mayor's race, including profiles of the candidates, go to

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or

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